Shortly after the election, there was a minor debate in literary circles about which classic dystopian novel better reflected and anticipated the Trump era. Readers voted for George Orwell, sending 1984 back atop the bestseller lists, while critics generally opted for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The choice, as Andrew Postman wrote in The Guardian, was between “an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state” and “a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble.”
Put another way, it is the choice between Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the Philip K. Dick novel that served as the inspiration for the film. It is a somewhat loose inspiration, given the two, similar to the Orwell/Huxley debate, represent something close to polar opposites among pessimistic pop culture depictions of where this all may be headed. (Such looseness is typical for Dick adaptations, a subgenre that’s unusual for featuring a number of classics, including Total Recall and Minority Report, that nevertheless veer pretty far from their source’s plots and tone.)
Here, the two do share a basic premise and plot through-line. In the far-flung year of 2019, a detective named Deckard (Harrison Ford) is on the trail of highly advanced humanoid robots who have come to Earth illegally and are hiding among us flesh-and-blood lookalikes. His job is to find them and kill them, though he develops something approximating love for one of them.
Beyond that broad outline, the two versions are markedly different, both in specific plot points and in their depiction of the future, something that, as in all science fiction, functions as a kind of commentary on the present. (The two even differ in terminology, with the contributions to the lexicon coming from the film: Deckard is a bounty hunter in the book, not a “blade runner”; and the androids there are “andys,” not “replicants.” The film’s opening crawl posits that androids are “obsolete.”) You can consider their differences this way: The plot, with its gumshoe protagonist, is at heart a private eye story. Dick therefore writes in the style of classic crime fiction, the parsed-down, hard-boiled prose of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane types, while Scott draws from that genre’s cinematic equivalent, film noir, which is far more stylized, impressionistic, and nihilistic. “It’s too bad she won’t live,” a character says of a dying body. “But then again, who does?”
Both versions depict worlds of despair, but do so in ways that are mirror images of each other. Blade Runner’s landmark production design creates a Los Angeles that’s overrun with decay and darkness. Nearly every major scene is set at night; it rains all the time. The city is one big slum, except for the Egyptian palace-like penthouse where the rich reside. It’s a dystopia of grotesque excess: commercialism, poverty, garbage, and crowds. Beyond how skillfully Scott created and depicted his setting (and how unnervingly convincing it is as a path civilization could take), the friction that arises out of this unequal and unhappy society is what makes the film so charged.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, in contrast, is a dystopia of absence. There are no crowds here, just isolation. Earth’s population was decimated in a war, and much of what survived fled for interstellar colonies. The setting’s biggest undercurrent isn’t a Darwinian struggle for survival, but the sense that humanity will soon be over. In the way that Children Of Men revolves around a lack of fertility, the world of Androids is defined by the near-absence of animals. The ones that do exist are both status symbols and investments; Deckard proudly owned a sheep, then hid its death from his neighbors with a robotic substitute. He plans to use his bounties to buy a goat, or even an ostrich, and at one point someone tries to bribe him with an owl (so valuable it will be given only on a temporary basis). A rival bounty hunter, otherwise just as stoic, desperately loves his pet squirrel, Buffy, and the test Deckard uses to identify andys involves measuring their emotional response to suggestions of animal cruelty.
The world of Blade Runner is also devoid of animals—“think I’d be working in a place like this if I could afford a real snake?” asks a dancer whose act involves a robo boa constrictor—but this serves as background texture rather than a driving theme. When an owl shows up and Deckard asks if it’s real, he’s told no. “Must be expensive,” he remarks, implying both real and fake ones are scarce.
Among Ford’s famous heroes, his Deckard is by far the most humorless—gruffer than Indiana Jones, lacking Han Solo’s roguish charm. The deep sadness at the heart of Dick’s creation is absent here; it’s hard to imagine this man grieving over a sheep or a goat (though what a sight that would be). It’s as if the screenplay (by David Peoples and Hampton Fancher) anticipated the performance, which wouldn’t fit in with the Deckard depicted in the book. When the film’s version becomes involved with the replicant Rachael (played by Sean Young), it is driven by a combination of lust and love. In the book, the brief tryst is all about need and filling a void.
The book version’s Deckard is married, and the dynamic he has with his wife suggests they would be happy in our reality. They, like everyone else in their world, employ a Huxley-style “mood organ” that forces mental states on them, everything from “a creative and fresh attitude toward [one’s] job” and “pleased acknowledgement of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters” to “the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it” and a setting for the apathetic that makes someone want to dial something. They’re a supportive couple, but the narcotic of forced emotion and the unending drone of an inane TV show deaden them and makes life away from the organ all the harder, not unlike any other gadget that needs to be plugged in to get fully charged.
Deckard’s wife is more cognizant of this, more willing to feel negative emotions. She hacks the machine for “self-accusatory depression” and threatens, “if you dial for greater venom, then I’ll dial the same. I’ll dial the maximum and you’ll see a fight that makes every argument we’ve had up to now seem like nothing.” The reason she makes herself depressed is because she realizes “how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting.” She’s literally more emotional, but also more stable, whereas Deckard struggles against a world he can’t program away.
The film teases that Deckard himself is a replicant (the degree to which this is underlined varies depending on which of the five cuts you watch; the sequel Blade Runner 2049—which doesn’t seem to have any connection to the book’s story—evidently takes it that he is as its premise), but having him be an andy would be redundant. While one andy fucks with a different bounty hunter by insisting he isn’t human—how do you know your memories are your memories, rather than simply being implanted like software into your brain?—there isn’t any ambiguity about Deckard himself. Quite the contrary: Dick underlines the humanness of his protagonist; Deckard doesn’t just calm down, “his adrenal gland, by degrees, ceased pumping its several secretions into his bloodstream.” That’s clinical, but biological; he’s running on chemicals, not coding. Perhaps this is why Android’s vision of the world, while superficially “nicer” than Blade Runner’s, ultimately feels more despairing. When you’re human, you can’t get an upgrade that works out the bugs.
Start with: Blade Runner is second only to Raging Bull among venerated classics that I, personally, just can’t get into. After several viewings (of multiple versions) I remain more an admirer than a fan, and as such would sooner return to Dick’s sparse mindfuck than Scott’s overwhelming vision. I understand that conclusion is a minority report (a term I just invented), though. Ultimately the film is a sensory experience; Scott seems more invested in the visual possibilities of this world—both the futurism and the hallucinogenic dream sequences, which build on his Orwell-inspired Apple commercial—whereas Dick focuses more on the philosophical implications of what truly makes one human, and how memories play into that (a recurring theme in his work). The latter is personally more absorbing to me, but I get why people feel otherwise. Perhaps I just prefer my dystopias on the page, as I’m similarly lukewarm on Brazil. Just, please, keep such nightmares out of the real world.